August 30, 2014

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, part 4: Are we in San Francisco?

San Francisco. What can I say about you, San Francisco? My friend Sam kept asking "Are we in San Francisco?" Strange to go to a city and get to know it's homeless population rather than it's culture, history, food, and tourist attractions. But we weren't there for humanitarian purposes. No, we were there to see Jack White. But according to the barista I spoke with during one of my many visits to the nearby Starbuck's, the area around the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium contains the highest population of homeless in San Fran and we were there long enough to have a few interesting experiences with them. If you ever run into Alicia Please around Civic Park, be sure to buy her a cheesesteak and ask her to show you her roundhouse kick.

Oh yeah, there were a couple of very interesting shows, too, and time spent on the roller-coaster.  I found it very hard to write about these shows because I followed them up with two more in Seattle and by the time I flew home I felt as if I'd been to one great big 10+ hour long show instead of four individual ones, so reading this entry and the next might feel a bit like being on the roller-coaster yourself. But I'll do my best to make things clear.

 Jack apparently has a soft spot for San Fran, so he came out very exuberant and full of smiles the first night. And he had lots of surprises in store for us- The first was when he quieted the band and motioned to drummer Daru Jones to keep playing a simple steady beat, then grabbed the mic off its stand, whipped the cord to yank it loose, and stepped from the stage down onto the row of speakers in front of it to belt out Little Room, a simple-yet-profound song that pretty much sums up his philosophy.  It was something I would never have expected him to add to his solo sets, so it was a tremendous treat.  There were also great cover song surprises, such as Charley Patton's Pony Blues, Albert King's Born Under a Bad Sign, and Eddie Cochran's Jeanie Jeanie Jeanie.  And the thing I always hope for with Jack, his interesting streams of consciousness and ramblings-- My favorite of this night was when he was prompting us for the call and response portion of Steady As She Goes, when he asked "Would you help out a poor American who's down on his luck?"  I didn't recognize the quote right away, but Jack soon explained that it was from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, telling us how Bugs' cartoons aren't allowed to be shown anymore because they encourage people to hit each other too much, which he agrees with, but "God damn, Bugs Bunny's a brilliant motherfucker, don't you think?"  I do think, so he got a rousing cheer from me. 

My own personal surprise was that I had come to this show with a message for him. At the Detroit Masonic Temple, he'd said something at the end of Black Bat Licorice-- When he says "Whatever you feed me, I'll feed you right back...", he added a line about "when you call me ugly" (possibly a reference to the "sad Jack" meme that'd recently gotten way too much attention around the internet?). It put me in mind of the White Stripes song I'm As Ugly As I Seem, which has been one of my favorites since the beginning of my addiction. So the day before my trip, I picked up a yard of silky blue fabric and painted a banner that read "You're not ugly, Jack, but I'd love to hear Ugly As I Seem". The first time he slowed the pace of the show, I pulled it out and unfolded it, holding it in front of me on the other side of the barrier so he could see it when he looked in my direction. It didn't seem to attract his attention 
through the next song or two, so I draped the top of it over the barrier so that I could go back to clapping. But then, in a moment between songs when he was standing back from the mic, he stood still with one arm resting across his guitar and the other hand on his hip and stared at the spot right below me, apparently trying to see what it said. I picked it up and held it higher so he could read the full message. After contemplating it for a moment, he got a strange, unreadable expression on his face (captured here, I believe. Edit: In looking at that photo again, I realize he's holding the wrong guitar. But whether it's that moment or not, that's pretty much the same facial expression) then looked up, around and down. I stood there watching him and trying to figure out what his expression and head roll meant, if perhaps he was trying to slow the gyroscope inside his brain long enough to find the words to the song. Then he stepped to the mic and began Hypocritical Kiss. When he got to the second verse, I was tossed back onto the roller-coaster as he sang something along the lines of "I walk and talk and sing on stage for you, I do everything that I can for you". I must have misread the situation, but those lines and that inscrutable facial expression had me paranoid through the rest of the show and much of the next day, wondering if my request had somehow annoyed him.

The next-to-last surprise in store for us was when his guitar tech brought out his specially-tuned Kay guitar. The Kay is normally the signal that the show is almost over-- There are only a few songs Jack plays in the key it's tuned to and one of them is sports arena favorite and frequent show-closer Seven Nation Army. Instead, he flipped out every serious fan in the crowd by launching into Death Letter, the Son House cover that practically defined the White Stripes. We didn't get the whole song, but it was enough to blow many of the minds in the crowd.

But the final surprise of the show, the one that we didn't actually learn about until the next night, came before that and it was that Jack sprained his ankle during the show. In the middle of a blazing Ball'n'Biscuit solo, he stepped down onto the speakers in front of the stage, missed his footing, and fell backwards onto the stage. While still wailing away on the guitar, he pulled himself back up into a sitting position and brought the song to an end, then dropped the guitar, hauled himself up, and limped back across the stage as the curtains were drawn to end the main set. 

But then after the usual break, he came roaring back out into High Ball Stepper and played his usual full-length encore-that's-really-a-second-set. We walked out at the end wrung out and exhilarated and wondering how tomorrow would be different.

There was much roller coaster drama the next day. We were first in line, but the security crew at the venue that day decided it would be fun to tell us how people behind us would rush past when the barrier to the doors was removed.  And then there was a screw-up late in the afternoon that sent 50 or so people over to the Third Man Vault early entry line even though they didn't have early entry. Security tried their darndest to get those folks to move back to the regular line, but of course were ignored by most of them.  I was assured by a supervisor that they wouldn't get in ahead of the regular line (but, of course, they did). It all put us right onto the damned roller-coaster.  Sharon started saying "If Jack wills it, it will all work out". Pragmatist that I am, I changed it to "If we will it, it will all work out" and crossed my fingers.

And as if we weren't anxious enough, 20 minutes before doors opened we found out what'd happened the night before, when Third Man Records posted a photo of a bruise covering Jack's entire ankle and containing half the colors of the rainbow. 

It was an ugly sight, but the caption of the post assured fans that Jack intended to go on that night despite being advised to cancel the rest of the shows on the tour. 

So there was a slightly angst-ridden anticipation in the air as we stood on the rail (yes, we made it despite the security crew's threats and screw-ups) waiting for the second show to begin. Just like at the Detroit Fox Theater show, I hate to see Jack have to deal with things like negative emotions or physical discomfort. It's a natural human instinct to sympathetically want anyone we're dealing with to be happy and comfortable. And yet, in the case of someone like Jack, knowing how adverse conditions can stimulate him, I couldn't wait to see how he would deal with the pain of a sprained ankle. Would he, could he, refrain from jumping and throwing himself around the stage and instead perform standing still? Hah. That thought shouldn't have crossed a single mind in the crowd. There was less hopping up and down than the previous night and he seemed to catch himself a few times before stepping off the stage onto the speakers in front, but beyond that there was no sign of his usual whirlwind being slowed.

This is one of the things that makes Jack White so singular. Yes, there are certainly other musicians, actors, dancers, and athletes who would go on with the show when ill or injured. But Jack not only went on, he acted as if nothing had happened, never mentioning the sprain or giving any indication to the audience that he'd hurt himself or was in any sort of pain. I don't think it was entirely a matter of professionalism, either. I think it was in large part his compulsion to do what he does, and his constantly driving need to overcome struggle. He wanted to play this second show, he was happy in front of the crowd in this city both nights, he just plain wasn't going to let an injury keep him from it.  He not only went on with the show as full of smiles as he'd been the previous night, he gave us treats like the White Stripes' I Think I Smell a Rat and Jimi Hendrix's Manic Depression, and a very surprising hip-hop cover song, Dead Dogs Two, by cLOUDDEAD.

And just to show how completely he can re-work a cover song and make it his own, here's the original--

And this, this was one of the most special treats of all, an entirely improvised song apparently off the top of his head--

So the roller-coaster ride of this second night was not without it's high points. These were the first shows at which I really noticed how subtle and terrific Jack's interaction with his current band is. There were moments when it was also quite endearing, such as when he repeatedly and playfully backed up into fiddle player Lillie Mae Rische until she finally had to climb up onto one of the monitors to get away from him. And his childhood friend-become-bass player Dominic Davis has developed a set of signals with Jack that allow him to help direct song changes to the rest of the band so that Jack can continue singing and playing. At the beginning of the Ball'n'Biscuit solo the first night, when Jack was all the way up at the front of the stage, Dominic came forward to step on the appropriate pedal on Jack's board at the just the right moment in the song. And the end of Seven Nation Army has become a battle of sorts between Jack and drummer Daru Jones, with the two of them seeming to try to outdo each other in power and intensity until Jack finally stops and holds the guitar still, letting Daru unleash on the drums and obviously enjoying watching it just as much as the crowd does. Sometimes he'll grab a spare drumstick and begin bashing at a cymbal as Daru plays, or even use the Kay to bash away. On the second night in San Francisco, he climbed up behind Daru on the drum riser, grabbed a pair of sticks, then leaned down and reached around Daru's waist to beat at the snare drum in front of him, then reached over next to Daru to pound on the tom drum and cymbal, continuing on like this, shifting position around Daru until the two of them became like some kind of giddily grinning four-armed wild beast beating the hell out of the entire drumkit until they brought the song to a crazy crescendo. 

As can be heard there, he closed the show by telling the audience that San Francisco was the first city on the west coast to stand up and cheer for his music and then cried out "And you're still doing it!" And his voice choked up as he said that this wasn't lost on him. The combination of his appreciation for the audience's reaction both nights and the fulfillment of just accomplishing this show on a sprained ankle was a pretty heady thing for both him and us. 

To be continued in Seattle.

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